近海る (Kin Kairu)

JET, Japan, Journalism and other J words

Tokushima Temple Walk Day 3: Mt. Doom

Read Day 2 here

Originally written: December 29, 2013

Temples traveled to: only #12

Signs at the beginning of the road to Temple 12

Signs at the beginning of the road to Temple 12

The road to Temple 12 starts innocently off the main grounds of Temple 11. Giant, red arrows point towards the steep hill beginning the climb, accompanied by multiple signs reading “absolutely no bathrooms ahead.”

Unfortunately today started off late, finally hitting the road at 9 a.m., since for one reason or another I was lazy and really took my time leaving Kamo no Yu. I honestly thought the timing would be OK, with the average length of getting to Temple 12 being about 5 hours. After returning to Temple 11 and approaching the path, stretching, and giving a final prayer to one of the many Boddhisattva statues who is said to protect travelers, I was ready to tackle the hike.

Since today was the expected “cold one,” I bundled up pretty heavily wearing two sweatshirts, a flannel shirt, a t-shirt, a windbreaker, long-johns and jeans. This proved to be too much of a hassle even 30 minutes in, as the combination of my pace and how much I was carrying increased my body temperature rapidly. After finding the first available bench, I took off both sweatshirts, and kept on the windbreaker and flannel shirt for the rest of the trip, even at the highest altitudes.

The other thing I feel was never fully explained was just how small and rustic the path is. I truly do admire the people who paved the trail, but, I kid you not, many times the road was no more than three-feet wide and/or simply carved out of protruding rocks, which made for some really unsafe footing during particular sharp-angled paths. The bathhouse warnings from yesterday also rang true, as large piles of leaves with melting snow made for some slips that could have been very fatal. Really, there were only two options if I were to fall: hit a rock face on one side or fall down a cliff covered with trees on the other.

Despite all of that, the major issue with the road to Temple 12 is that it’s a giant cock tease. There’s the first peak, going up to about 600 meters, then you head down to 500, climb back up to another peak at 750 meters, go down again to about 450 meters and then climb the final incline towards Temple 12 which stands at 750 meters. And this is only a 12.9 km hike! For some reason or another, I didn’t read my guidebook carefully enough and thought when I hit the first peak I was halfway through. I. was. wrong.

Statue found a quarter of the way through to Temple 12.

Statue found a quarter of the way through to Temple 12.

One of the(many)mistakes I made while hiking today was not drinking enough water, but if I stopped to take a drink it would become too cold to bear(damned if I kept too many clothes on, damned if I didn’t).Multiple times on the trail, my brain created little Buddha statues out of bushes and rocks, and while there were plenty of real ones on the trail, my mind created much more, much larger ones. During one of these delusions, and on one particularly hard part of the hike, I saw what I thought to be stairs off in the distance. I started laughing to myself, really thinking I was off the deep end, until I got closer and saw that they were, in fact, real. After a short burst of excitement, I ran up the stairs thinking I was either on my way to the temple grounds or approaching them. At the top of the stairs I was welcomed by a VERY large Kobo Daishi statue in front of a VERY old and large tree, which is another pivotal landmark on the road. I took a short break at a bench nearby to finally drink some water and check my map to see where I was. I was now just halfway through.

I feel if the Kobo Daishi statue could speak to me, he would say something in the Japanese fashion of “Oh, hey! Great job! You’re really doing great, but, um, I hate to say this: you’re barely even halfway through. Yeah…I’m so sorry! Oh, and it gets worse from here. But keep fighting! Oh, I heard you say ‘やった!’ on the way up here. You’re Japanese is really good! You’re basically a genius.”

Having no other choice than to go down another part of a mountain and right back up another, it was here I really started to get irritated. The temple just seemed so far away and it wasn’t getting any easier. I really felt I wasn’t going to make it at times. There would be times I slipped or had to climb up a barely functional part of the trial, and I would take my walking stick and beat it against the nearest pile of leaves or rock.

It is here I will remind everyone it is believed Kobo Daishi’s spirit is embodied in every pilgrim’s walking stick, so if my walk was made into some cheesy, ongoing drama, this would be the point where Kobo and I would have an argument, and as the emotions run higher, I hit him and just start wailing. Everything goes silent and he looks towards me hurt, saddened and petrified. The audience looks on appalled and saddened, wondering how our relationship came to this.

And then maybe he gives me some kind of an intervention speech about the meaning of friendship and kindness or something, I don’t know, anyway.

It was only when I exited the forest and finally saw roads and houses that my confidence was lifted. And, almost as if some force rang it to tease me, I heard a bell, which could only mean I was getting closer. I walked down the trail and started walking up another side of another mountain. This time I got to walk alongside of a large, rushing river, with clear, natural pools, which would hard not to jump in if walking on a hot summer’s day.

While that part of the walk was also particularly aggravating, I found myself at the end of the trail and was suddenly on a road with a pathway straight ahead completely covered with stone lanterns. I almost couldn’t believe it. When I saw the first, absolutely massive Fudo Myo statue, officially marking the entrance to the temple, all of my pain, anxiety, stress and exhaustion just lifted out of my body. I was finally at Temple 12. I was on cloud 9 and the top of a god-damn mountain.

When you see this, you know you've made it.

When you see this, you’ve made it.

Temple 12 is absolutely grand. It’s large, has a lot of interesting buildings and statues on the grounds and is definitely at the top of my list of favorite temples on the trial, but having said that I actually didn’t get any photos of it. At all. None. Zero. Which is a shame, and I hope a part of that will make it even more reason for you, the reader, to go, but I simply did not have the time to snap any pictures, as I will explain from here.

Sleeping Buddha statue on the final pathway to Temple 12

Sleeping Buddha statue on the final pathway to Temple 12

After getting to the main grounds and doing the usual rituals, almost completely in a daze, I happened to look over at a nearby clock, and it suddenly hit me: it was three o’clock, the sun was going to set in the next couple of hours and I was far away from my planned camping space. Completely in a scramble, I asked if the temple’s lodging was available. They told me it was closed, and handed me a list of nearby inns from the temple staff. I called four places listed and, lo and behold, they were all closed for New Years. Looking at my guidebook, there was one other inn that was not listed on the temple handout and not too far away from my locale called Sudachi-kan. I gave them a call and an old lady answered, saying they had space for me to stay. Overwhelmed with joy, I headed straight down the mountain(at one point I had to sit on my ass and slide down a sidewalk like an ice-level in a video game…)for the inn before the sun set.

Sudachi-kan is actually the name of the store, but the rooms available are right across the street. When I arrived, the same old lady greeted me and immediately gave me some hot tea, mochi and yuzu, telling me to relax. After consuming everything and some light chatter, she showed me the room, fully equipped with a sink, two beds and a heater, and she told me to rest until dinner.

When I arrived for mealtime, the old lady said her husband was actually picking up another guest: a poor soul who was trying to camp but couldn’t find a space(heh…). While we ended up waiting about an hour and a half, we drank some more tea and I took the opportunity to practice some of my Japanese, asking her some of the usual basic questions. She was approaching 70, had no children and told me of all the different people she’s encountered while running the hostel, with currency from all over the world plastered on the walls as evidence. She handed me an album, saying they take photos of every pilgrim that stays so they can remember all the faces, names and places. In many of the earlier photos, there was one particular dog always been held to pose for the shot. Excited at the potential to meet it, I asked where the dog might be.

“Actually,” the old lady said, stopping for a moment, “she died after getting in a fight with some wild boars that came out from the woods…That was about two weeks ago.”

While it was easy to laugh off at the time, the warning about the boars was true, even though I was lucky enough not to see any. I wasn’t really sure what to say next, but she pointed to a painting of the dog by the refrigerator. “While I said I didn’t have any children, I would say she was my child. Even though she’s gone, I can still be happy thinking of all the pilgrims I’ve helped that come by and stay.”

Shortly after, an old man flew open the door. “Sorry I’m late!” he shouted.

“Dinner’s been ready for a while now!” the old lady countered without a second thought.

“Sorry, our guest was a little hard to find.”

A young woman walked in, with a stuffed backpack and covered head to toe in winter clothes, and also apologized for being tardy. The old lady said not to worry about it and set the plates and dishes out for dinner, which consisted of a creamy stew, salad, Miso soup, rice, fish, mochi and and assortment of vegetables. The meal was absolutely delicious by any meaning of the word.

The young woman introduced herself, saying she was from Gunma and also trying to finish the first 23 temples during her winter break. During my self-introduction, she made the joke(which most Japanese people say the first time I meet them)that my name should be “the frog,” because how close the pronunciation of the two words are in Japanese. This of course got the whole room laughing. Without a clever comeback, I said I’d just be calling her Gunma-chan in return.

After plate, after plate of food, the old lady handed Gunma-chan and me “free entry” tickets to a nearby onsen, saying it was going to be a lot better than using their bath. While I was in a bit of shock, the old man got up and said “hurry up and grab your towels or we’re going to be late!” and drove us to the hot spring.

After the absolutely refreshing and relaxing trip, I returned to my room and shortly after Gunma-chan knocked on my door, holding a bag of filled with oranges. “The old lady said that these were for you. Also, breakfast’s at 6 a.m., so we’ll see you in the morning!”

In many ways, Day 3 of the walk had some of the highest highs and some of the lowest lows of the entire trip. After having to endure a true test of fate trying to hike to Temple 12, I was welcomed with an unsurpassed amount of kindness and hospitality when I arrived at Sudachi-kan. While the couple said they had never walked to the temple themselves, I can only imagine after hearing the countless amount of horror stories from other pilgrims, they understand the pain in some way too.

When I was first writing this post, I was really debating how much detail I should write about the pain of walking Temple 12’s trail. I really do hope I’ve given a raw-enough reaction to what it’s like, but I can at least say that I’ve done it and plenty of other people have too. It just takes a lot of strength and willpower to make it through and, like I mentioned in the last post, make sure you have enough supplies to make it through, because there are no resources on the road. If I really had to boil it down, I would just say don’t underestimate that trail. At all.

But what I really wanted to emphasize in this retrospective part of the article is something I strived for after staying at Sudachi-kan. I’m sure some reading might be thinking “He was three days in and hasn’t used that $200 tent at all?!” I know, I know. While part of my fear was confirmed, with plenty of inns closed for the holidays, I was still able to find indoor lodging every single day. Even then, after talking with the owners of inns all across Tokushima they seemed to be genuinely appreciative of my, and other pilgrim’s, company and it’s those same pilgrims that let them keep the lights on. I learned so much and gained so many new connections and friends (even if we may never meet again) by staying at the family-owned inns that I wouldn’t trade it for a thing. So, sure, if a walker really wanted to keep it cheap, by all means camp, but it’s the owners of businesses along the pilgrim road who will have your back when you need it the most and without any second thought. You can’t put a price on that.

Day 3 Lodging
Sudachi-kan すだち館
088-677-1180
About 3 km down the mountain from Temple 12, next to an abandoned Elementary School
¥4000/night with meals
Check out 7:00 a.m.

Next post! Temples 13-16, the trouble with handing out name cards, and the continuing adventures of Gunma-chan.

Read Day 4 here

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One thought on “Tokushima Temple Walk Day 3: Mt. Doom

  1. Christine on said:

    Kobo Daishi sounds like such a cheerful coach.

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